Arms control: the only road to peace

Feb 25, 2023
Two chairs with flags of Australia and china isolated on white. Communication/dialog concept.

The world was a very dangerous place in the late 1960s. It is again. This time the danger is in Asia as well as Europe, as highlighted by John Lyons’s recent two-part series on the ABC.

The difference is key leaders in the late 1960’s acted to reduce the risks. The US and the USSR each had over 30,000 nuclear warheads posing a constant threat of an accidental or deliberate nuclear launch. The US President Johnson took the initiative to limit the number of warheads to reduce these risks. President Nixon and Chairman Brezhnev subsequently signed the SALT treaty in May 1972 to begin cutting the number of warheads. However, President George W. Bush undermined this crucial arms-control effort by withdrawing from the associated Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2001.

The latest version of the 1972 treaty, New START, will expire in three years unless replaced. Following Bush’s example, President Putin has announced that Russia will suspend its membership of this treaty, but is expected to adhere to the limit of no more than 1550 deployed warheads each. The Federation of American Scientists recently warned that Russia and the US could quickly increase the number of deployed warheads in the absence of a new agreement. It estimates the US numbers could grow to 3570 warheads and 2629 for Russia. The US has already budgeted a staggering $634 billion for its nuclear forces from 2021 to 2030. That’s before any expansion.

Concerns that Putin could use a nuclear weapon make a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine more urgent. China has a plan for an agreement focused on upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity and the UN charter. Putin may not like it, but China has enough sway over Russia’s economy to force him to withdraw from Ukraine. The US could stop Ukraine fighting by turning off the supply of arms and funding.

Australia should support nuclear arms control by refusing to buy nuclear submarines using US highly enriched weapons grade uranium for the reactors. Because the Albanese government insists it will have sovereign control over these submarines, they will at least breach the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which bans nuclear weapons states from transferring nuclear weapons technology to any other state. Australia’s acquisition weapons grade uranium could also breach the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone established by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga which Australia signed.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese announced additional military spending on Wednesday and described the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal as the “single biggest leap in our defence capability in our history”. Far from a great leap forward, Australia will spend huge sums on eight submarines which are inferior to modern conventionally powered ones. Even if all goes well, some nuclear subs will still to be delivered after 2060. Albanese shows a disturbing level of ignorance about defence. In this case, he seems unaware that defence spending as a proportion of GDP was 15 per cent in World War I and 35 per cent in World War II. Australian industry manufactured almost 2200 fighter planes during that war.

At no stage does Albanese show any sign of understanding Australia could never spend enough to deter China, the implicit enemy. Nor does he grasp that a war with China would be a horrendous disaster. He is the “Mouse That Roared” in the Peter Sellers movie of that title. More Australian military spending would make no meaningful difference to outcome of a war with China. Nor does he appreciate that from China’s maritime perspective, it is confronted by US forces and surrounded by US military bases. Modern China, which has never initiated a full scale aggressive war, does not deploy ships and planes to patrol off the US coastline. Little wonder it is building up its defences to deny access to its own coastline.

John Lyons interviewed four highly regarded defence analysts for his two part series. A former head of the Australian Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie told Lyons , “The contemplation of war can only be justified after all other means of settling differences have failed, and we are a long way from reaching this position (over Taiwan).” He says, “I worry when politicians start to think it is acceptable to use the media to make threats about war.

“We once had a praiseworthy reputation for the quality of our leadership and our officials. Our role in the establishment of the UN is an exemplar of the kind of country we should aspire to be. Unlike the experience of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that affected only the members deployed into conflict, and their families, a war with China will have an impact on all Australians — economically, financially, and personally. It is likely to impoverish us all; it may even kill most of us if it goes nuclear.”

He said, “The fundamental assumption that we could win a war against China is wrong-headed and hawkish. Australia should use all the means at its disposal to avert a war with China. This is what a statesman should do as a risk averse response.” The Defence Minister Richard Marles prefers to talk about increasing the lethality of Australia’s forces.

Allan Behm, a former senior defence official, told Lyons a war with China “would be profoundly and devastatingly different to any other Australia has participated in since World War II”. He said, “Australia has a fundamental strategic pathology – to support the interests of the US at the expense of our own”. A war with China over Taiwan, awful as that would be, involves no Australian national interests.
Australian journalists routinely describe Taiwan as an independent country that China wants to take over. This is false, as they should know. All major countries around the world recognise that Taiwan is part of China. The Challis chair of international law at Sydney University, Ben Saul, says every state has a right to maintain authority over its territory and people, including by forcefully suppressing separatism. Before Australian gave diplomatic recognition to China in 1972, Taiwan even maintained the fiction that it ruled the whole of China from its capital Taipei.

Another former defence official Hugh White told Lyons that a war with China “would be devastating whether we joined the fighting or not. Our economy would be paralysed as all trade with China and other major East Asian partners would stop dead and may not resume for a long time”. He said, “The prospect of a war with China raises very different possibilities — including the significant likelihood that aircraft, ships and submarines we committed would be destroyed, with the potential for very high casualties among the crews.”
Clinton Fernandes, a former intelligence official and now a respected scholar, told the ABC that in the recent parliamentary inquiry into war powers reform, the Defence department said it didn’t think parliament should have authority to decide our involvement because that “could undermine the confidence of our international partners as a reliable and timely security partner.” Defence’s attitude is profoundly anti-democratic. Parliament must be at the pinnacle of our system of government. Departments must be subordinate.

To adopt Admiral Barrie’s wise advice that Australia should focus all the means at its disposal to avert a war with China, it should confine military spending to an affordable defence of Australia. It should reject the current forward defence posture in which nuclear submarines are meant to be deployed thousands of kilometres to our north to fire cruise missiles into China.

Australia should also play an active role in trying to prevent war in conjunction with ASEAN countries. Although not simple, a continuing effort should be made to persuade China to be generous in reaching agreements over territorial sea boundaries in the South China Sea. So should Taiwan, which makes the same claims as China.


Read John Lyons’ recent two- part series:

What would war with China look like for Australia? Part 1

What would war with China look like for Australia? Part 2

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